Last week's "Best Of" rerun in this slot was a Multiverse-driven card story. This week heads toward the other end of the spectrum, with a broad historical look at the R&D thought process that goes into making "hate" cards for particular colors or strategies. Guest author and human tactical computer Erik Lauer delivered a clear and comprehensive look at R&D policy and vision concerning these often contentious cards. This article gave me added insight into how R&D makes these decisions, and that's speaking as someone inside the building. This one's definitely worth a second read.
–Kelly Digges, magicthegathering.com editor
olors have been hating each other since Alpha. Black Knight and White Knight have been cruising by each other, crashing into life totals since Magic started. Those creatures are always useful, and even better if your opponent happens to be playing the opposite color. Even the biggest green creatures seemed to die in terror, until Legends brought us Whirling Dervish.
But the set had far more devastating cards to show just how much these colors did not get along.
All I need to do is get four lands in play and play Karma, and your own Swamps will do you in! One damage per swamp every turn, how can I lose? In a word: Gloom. I can't even play Karma. If I have a Disenchant in hand, I still need five mana before I can play it.
Color hate spells got even crueler as time passed. Alpha also had Flashfires, which let red destroy all Plains for just four mana. When Ice Age was released, with it came the awesome Stench of Evil. No longer could the white mage shrug off the loss of all Plains—damage was inflicted too! Red also got more weapons against White, Anarchy was there to solve the red's problem with Circle of Protection: Red, and all other white permanents.
The set with the most devastating color hate was Tempest. An entire deck archetype could be invalidated for a single mana with Dread of Night. Not only would this kill many of the white weenies, but it stuck on the board to make all of them weaker. Black found an awesome answer to Whirling Dervish and all other green creatures with Perish. Green creature decks would eventually get Compost.
Red's problems with blue decks seemed to be solved with the instant "Armageddon you" card in Boil. The instant part would be perfect against blue. If blue tapped out to do something at any time, Boil was ready... except that mono-red decks were facing big problems on turn two. Chill could lock out the red deck before it ever got a chance to get going. Chill and Gloom are amoung the least fun cards ever printed.
Making Hate Less Crushing
Looking back at Alpha again, there were Red Elemental Blast and Blue Elemental Blast. Those cards were very efficient against the enemy color, and showed up at the highest level of tournament play. However, they were not so devastating as cards like Chill and Gloom. Both players continued playing their spells. Recently we have been printing more cards along those lines.
In Coldsnap we printed a cycle where each color got a card targeting its two enemy colors. Those cards are Luminesce, Flashfreeze, Deathmark, Cryoclasm, and Karplusan Strider.
Hate Cards and Sideboarding
We continue to print such cards for a number of reasons. First off, for newer players these help define the colors. In particular, that there are allied colors and enemy colors. The colors, and how they relate, are a wonderful part of Magic.
Another reason is that if your friend has a deck which you find difficult to deal with, these powerful haters might give you a fighting chance. If you are tired of all your creatures being crushed by Jaws of Stone, you can put Luminesce in your deck.
A similar reason is that it helps competitive play by keeping environments more balanced. Uri Peleg won last year's Magic World Championships playing a deck which made excellent use of Doran, the Siege Tower. Suppose that became a runaway hit in local tournaments. That is similar to having a friend who keeps beating you with the same deck. But what does the competitive player do?
If you were playing a deck with black mana, you could sideboard Deathmark. In Sanctioned play, you can have a 15-card sideboard with cards you can swap into your deck for games 2 and 3 of a best-of-three match. If you lose the first game but win the two side boarded games, you win the match. Suppose you have only a 30% chance of winning the first game in a particular matchup, but your sideboard brings your chance of winning each subsequent game up to 60%. That would be enough to give you a marginally favorable (50.4%) * best-of-three matchup.
Since 15 cards is a fairly limited number, these "sideboard slots" are a precious resource for tournament players.
Typically most of the sideboard cards are aimed towards the most popular decks. If your deck is not one of the most popular decks, and is not vulnerable to cards people have in their sideboard to fight those popular decks, people might not have any cards to bring in against you at all. Meanwhile if you are prepared for the popular deck, you can have very efficient cards to replace your least effective cards in those matchups. If Doran decks similar to Uri's were the most popular, people playing Doran decks would need copies of Deathmark in their own sideboard in case they were playing a "mirror match." That gives them a weaker match against decks that aren't vulnerable to Deathmark, since they would have fewer sideboard slots to use against those decks.
Not Only Colors Hate
There is also a history of hate cards not based on color. Antiquities was an artifact set that included Energy Flux, a powerful weapon against artifact decks. It also had Hurkyl's Recall, which could be used either in or against artifact decks. Blood Moon was first printed in The Dark, and is a very powerful weapon against decks relying on too many nonbasic lands. The Dark also gave us Tormod's Crypt, a very efficient graveyard hate card.
Mirrodin was an artifact set that contained the tools for the powerful Affinity deck. Kataki, War's Wage is a powerful hate card against artifact decks, which came in Saviors of Kamigawa. Because of that experience we are more likely to not wait so long to provide a hate card against a powerful deck. For instance Coldsnap brought back the snow mechanic, but also gave us Freyalise's Radiance should people find snow too powerful. Like many other hate cards, few people saw the need to use the card. Since Ravnica had dredge, a powerful graveyard mechanic, Coldsnap and the Timespiral "timeshifted" set both had graveyard hate. Coldsnap had Jötun Grunt, while the timeshifted set had Tormod's Crypt. The Crypt was one of the most played sideboard cards in the last Extended Qualifier season.
Time Spiral gave us the suspend mechanic, but the same block gave us Riftsweeper. Riftsweeper is unusual in that it doesn't mention suspend anywhere on the card. However, it is very potent in that it not only shuffles away a suspended card, but provides a 2/2 creature as well, all for two mana. Uri had it in the sideboard of his World Championship–winning deck, and it played a significant role in his victory over Patrick Chapin in the final match of the tournament. Patrick was playing a Dragonstorm deck that used Lotus Bloom for acceleration. At Uri's convenience, he could use the Riftsweeper to sweep aside the suspended Lotus before Patrick could have his potent tool. That match was a best of five, with potentially four side boarded games, making powerful sideboard cards even more decisive.
Hate in Lorwyn
Lorwyn was in development when Makihito Mihara won the World Championships with a Dragonstorm deck. We had hoped that Gaddock Teeg would be effective against our Dragonstorm decks in the Future Future League. However, the Dragonstorm decks were winning too frequently. Part of the problem was that a hard-cast Bogardan Hellkite could kill Gaddock Teeg, and some other creatures. At the very least that would buy the Dragonstorm player some time to build up to play the title card. In an effort to make Kithkin better against Dragonstorm, Burrenton Forge-Tender was changed so it could prevent all the damage the Bogardan Hellkite would do. Later we determined that other cards that were strong in our Dragonstorm decks needed to be changed. Incendiary Command could be used to deal 6 damage to your opponent at that point, and which was the amount then required to activate a Spinerock Knoll. Fathom Trawl used to cost to play. After those cards were changed, we were more confident that the Dragonstorm decks would end up at an appropriate power level. However we liked the Forge-Tender so much that we kept its strong anti-red ability. It has showed up in Block, Standard, and Extended giving white a good sideboard tool against red.
Lorwyn was a tribal set, so some tribal hate was needed. Cloudthresher was intended as a creature that was generally playable, but excellent against Faeries, in much the way that Black Knight is playable and excellent against white. A different direction would have been to print a powerful anti-tribal card such as Engineered Plague. The downside of Engineered Plague is that it isn't good against one particular tribe; it practically invalidates all the tribes. The problem with the Cloudthresher approach is that in some sense it wasn't hateful enough.
Blue and black have permission and discard. A blue-black deck can counter the Cloudthresher, or take it directly from the opponent's hand. Another problem is that green did not do as well as blue and black with the Coldsnap color-hate cards. The Faeries decks had access to (though perhaps not enough room for) Flashfreeze and Deathmark. Maybe there was room because, other than Thoughtseize, there weren't many cards the Faerie decks would want in their sideboards to bring in against opposing Faerie decks. Meanwhile, the green Karplusan Strider just was not good enough to hurt the Faerie decks. There were tools such as Chameleon Colossus, Magus of the Moon, various anti-flying cards, and even opposing Bitterblossoms. Shadowmoor added a couple more anti-permission cards such as Guttural Response and Vexing Shusher. While these didn't do anything about the Faeries in particular, they gave everyone more options fighting the controlling blue portions of the deck.
At Pro Tour–Hollywood, that was sufficient to keep the Faeries down. While Faeries were about 25% of the field, there was only one Faerie deck in the Top 8, and none in the top 4. However the lack of a defining effective anti-Faerie card did lead to a lot of frustration. I think the lack of a good card for Faerie players to sideboard in against each other both made the mirror match less interesting and left them with too many slots to beat other decks.
Shards of Alara brings us some potent discard cards including Blightning and Cruel Ultimatum. Since those are powerful cards, but not the primary theme of the set, it is good to have efficient anti-discard cards around, such as Wilt-Leaf Liege.
Tormod's Crypt has left Standard, but Shards of Alara brings us Relic of Progenitus another powerful graveyard hater. The Relic helps keep unearth in check. It also happens to be very strong against Makeshift Mannequin, Reveillark, and many other graveyard strategies. Storm in no longer in standard, but it is still around in other formats, and Ethersworn Canonist is available to keep things in check. Mindlock Orb is available to shut down decks that tutor too much, though that one is a little less clear.
Even some of the Charms have their hateful elements. Jund Charm has the option of removing target player's graveyard from the game, as well as an instant two damage to all players. The first option is excellent against Reveillark, while the second option is a strong response to a Mistbind Clique from a Faerie deck. The third option (putting two +1/+1 counters on target creature) may be useful, but does not seem so hateful.
Hate is such an ugly term, but it helps bring balance to the Multiverse.
* Here one way of computing the 50.4% match win probability. You can win games 1 and 2 (.3 * .6 = 0.18). You can win game 1, lose game 2, and win game 3 (.3 * .4 * .6 = 0.072). Finally you can lose game 1, win game 2, and win game 3 (.7 * .6 * .6 = 0.252). 0.18 + 0.072 + 0.252 = 0.504 = 50.4%.